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May 1, 2010

Ethics and the financial crisis front and center on Capitol Hill -
Catholic leaders react to Arizona's new immigration law -
New Web sites on social justice and priestly or consecrated-life vocations -
Charity's essential role in ecumenism


In this edition:
1. Ethics 101: Capitol Hill and the recession.
2. Ethics and the basics of right and wrong.
3. Ethical anchors: the common good, natural law.
4. Current quotes to ponder on ethics and the economy:
a) Pope Benedict's April 30 speech;
b) the force of greed;
c) virtue and the economy. 5. Two new Web sites worth consulting.
6. Catholic leaders oppose Arizona's new immigration law.
7. The blogging archbishops of L.A. and New York: Arizona's law.
8. The centrality of charity for ecumenism's future.

1. April 27 on Capitol Hill: Ethics and the Recession

Did conduct by the investment banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs contribute to this century's great recession, which in many ways is still with us - a recession that left so many people jobless and/or pensionless and/or no longer homeowners? The U.S. Senate panel that grilled executives of the firm April 27 had that question high in mind.

You might have expected the day's discussion to start and finish with questions of legality - whether the firm broke the law. But Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich), who chaired the Senate panel, said he would leave that question to other bodies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Instead, Levin told the executives he wanted this to be a conversation about "ethics and policy." His statement caught my attention, for I've been at pains over the past two years to report what church leaders had to say about the financial crisis. Throughout that time I was struck by how willing so many of them were to state not merely that business and public-policy failings, but ethical failings were at the root of these painful economic developments.

It isn't my purpose here to discuss whether Goldman Sachs and other specific firms bear culpability for the financial meltdown. Instead, it was the very notion of conducting a discussion of ethics - or, more specifically, business ethics - on Capitol Hill that intrigued me.

I realize that a full-fledged discussion of ethics was unlikely to develop during the Capitol Hill hearings. One side surely had been coached by lawyers in preparation for the proceedings. For the other side, the day was political in more ways than one.

Yet, suppose such a discussion were possible sometime - and not only on Capitol Hill. Suppose that different parties such as bankers, political leaders, ordinary citizens, educators, business owners and workers, and maybe even representatives of the world of religion were to say to each other: "Look, lots of leaders allege that the financial meltdown resulted from serious ethical lapses. So let's talk about this -- without shouting and in a manner that is neither moralistic nor self-righteous." What then? What more or less common assumptions could help these people begin their conversation?

My question is this: What would such a discussion of ethics be? I mean, really, what would the participants talk about? And what parameters or guidelines would provide focus for their discussion?

Not to be flip, but I wondered afterward how many executives and panelists in that Capitol Hill room April 27 really knew "how" to discuss ethics. I'm not judging anyone unethical here. It's the "how" that I have in mind: how an actual discussion of ethics gets under way and, of course, what would ground it.

2. Are the Basics of Right and Wrong Actually Basic?

As a product of Catholic higher education, I am familiar with the sorts of ethical and moral explorations that are given focus by the Ten Commandments, the Gospel, the Great Commandment to love God and to love one's neighbor as oneself. Add to that various principles of church teaching on human dignity or rights, for example, and a conversation among believers, in basic terms, is likely to take off in a relatively productive direction.

I doubt, though, that an encounter such as the one April 27 on Capitol Hill would initiate an ethical discussion of that kind. Still, some ethical basics made an entrance during the Goldman Sachs hearings. Some participants definitely had "right and wrong" on their minds, for example, with some participants forcefully stating they had done nothing "wrong."

Sen. Levin, the panel's chairman, asked if actions on the part of Goldman Sachs in 2007 had been "appropriate." Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine asked whether the firm had acted in the best interests of its clients. Others on the panel wondered aloud if the firm had "gambled" in matters involving other people's financial well-being. One panelist used the term "reckless" to describe actions on the firm's part.

And from the Senate panel's side, concerns were heard about the harmful effects of greed, which, it might be noted, was a frequent ethical concern among religious leaders who have spoken on the recession. A viewpoint heard from the Senate panel also suggested that the financial crisis revealed a willingness of some to profit even when doing so encompassed harm to others.

Possibly a discussion of right and wrong could lend direction to a public, not-specifically religious discussion of ethics. For a genuinely productive discussion, however, wouldn't there need to be some agreement about what makes an action right or even what the word "wrong" means?

I don't know if Pope Benedict XVI might have made a contribution to the April 27 proceedings by reiterating what he told educators in Washington in April 2008, namely that "the church never tires of upholding the essential moral categories of right and wrong." Without these categories, human "hope could only wither," he said, and thus give way "to cold pragmatic calculations of utility which render the person little more than a pawn on some ideological chessboard."

Making pawns of other human beings would be one decidedly "wrong" action in the pope's manual of ethics.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans said in a 2004 address, when he was bishop of Austin, Texas, that it is important to "teach in such a way that we make it clear that there is right and wrong. There are those actions and attitudes that are life-giving and those that are not. There are those actions and attitudes that foster growth and those that do not."

In Archbishop Aymond's mind, then, life-giving actions and attitudes, along with those that foster growth, move people in the direction of doing what is "right."

An examination of what makes anything right or wrong could go on and on. But how possible would such a discussion be in the public/political realm?

Legality has concerned Catholic Church leaders for a long time when it comes to giving shape to discussions of right and wrong. Bishops have urged people to ponder whether the fact that something is legal makes it ethical. Since in the U.S. abortion is legal, you know how church leaders answer that question. The fact that something is legal will not always make it right.

Sin is a category that often anchors discussions of right and wrong in the church. I doubt that sin will anchor many discussions of ethics in the public or political realm, however.

3. The Common Good and Natural Law: Ethical Anchors?

The natural law is a category that church leaders in recent times have turned to with renewed energy, believing it could provide a foundation for ethical discussions in society at large. Perhaps society could agree, in other words, that certain actions are right because they are inscribed in human nature.

Pope Benedict expressed confidence in the natural law in "Charity in Truth" ("Caritas in Veritate"), his 2009 encyclical. "In all cultures there are examples of ethical convergence, some isolated, some interrelated, as an expression of the one human nature willed by the Creator; the tradition of ethical wisdom knows this as the natural law," he wrote.

He explained that he was talking about a "universal moral law" that "provides a sound basis for all cultural, religious and political dialogue," ensuring moreover "that the multifaceted pluralism of cultural diversity does not detach itself from the common quest for truth, goodness and God."

But the category that many in the church have turned to with unique interest in recent times is the "common good." The hope has been that this could provide the foundation for ethical explorations by people who are diverse in many ways. The Catholic bishops of England and Wales said in March 2010 that the common good "refers to what belongs to everyone by virtue of their common humanity."

The British bishops were concerned that trust had been broken in society during recent times, particularly due to the financial crisis, but in other ways as well, even within the church, and that to rebuild trust it is "crucial" that "our duty to the common good" be recognized.

Stephen Schneck, a political scientist at The Catholic University of America, discussed the common good in a 2007 speech. "Common good is a hard notion for contemporary Americans to understand," he said. The emphasis in the public square tends to be "on rights and interests," and politics typically is approached "on the lookout for what's in it for me."

However, Schneck said, "that's not the way it is for the common good, wherein participation in political life should be understood as service to the whole community." He meant this "in a pretty strong sense," Schneck stated. He explained:

"The good of the whole is what Catholic thinking says we should be after. And by this common good is understood the good of the whole itself -- not a vector of competition, not a balance of competing interests and not a passing majority of individuals or groups."

4. Quotes to Ponder on Ethics and the Economy

Pope Speaks on Ethics and the Recession April 30: "The worldwide financial breakdown has, as we know, demonstrated the fragility of the present economic system and the institutions linked to it. It has also shown the error of the assumption that the market is capable of regulating itself, apart from public intervention and the support of internalized moral standards. This assumption is based on an impoverished notion of economic life as a sort of self-calibrating mechanism driven by self-interest and profit-seeking. As such, it overlooks the essentially ethical nature of economics as an activity of and for human beings. Rather than a spiral of production and consumption in view of narrowly defined human needs, economic life should properly be seen as an exercise of human responsibility, intrinsically oriented toward the promotion of the dignity of the person, the pursuit of the common good and the integral development -- political, cultural and spiritual -- of individuals, families and societies." (From the speech by Pope Benedict XVI April 30 to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences)

The Force of Greed: "In spite of the admirable advances in the technical and scientific world, there is a progressive loss of moral, spiritual and transcendental values. This loss has produced in the world a culture highly centered on greed, power, wantonness and the selfishness that is at the root of the startling financial earthquake, felt already throughout the world and affecting all dimensions of life." (From a 2009 speech in New York by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras)

Is Virtue an Option in Economic Matters? "Of course the profit motive is crucial; of course responsibility to investors is a significant balancing factor in risk taking. But what we have seen is that, left to itself, the financial market has no robust external frame of reference, not even a wider economic framework. It has behaved as if it exists for itself and within itself and to the benefit of those who are part of it. What the market lacked was the perspective and practice of true virtue, which builds trust and without which every human endeavor is unstable." (From a November 2008 homily by Archbishop Vincent Nichols, then archbishop of Birmingham, England, but today archbishop of Westminster)

5. New Web Sites Worth Visiting: Social Justice and Vocations

You might want to call the attention of young people in your community to a new social justice Web site named "Transforming Our World: Our Catholic Faith in Action" (www.usccb.org/campus). It has been established for college students and campus ministers by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development in collaboration with 11 Catholic organizations.

The user-friendly site offers podcasts on Catholic social teaching that students can listen to on the move. There are videos to view on faith in action, brief readings on Catholic social teaching themes, suggestions for small group discussions and a lot more besides.

Another new Web site established under the auspices of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations focuses on vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life; it is designed as a resource in vocations promotion. This site - www.foryourvocation.org - aims to help individual men and women pondering a possible vocation, as well as to educate the Catholic community at large about its own importance in vocations promotion.

Thus, the site includes resources for educators, youth leaders and parents, as well as for vocations directors and individual men and women who are discerning a vocation. Visitors to the site are also invited to join its Facebook page.

6. Catholic Leaders Oppose Arizona's New Immigration Law

Arizona's new immigration-enforcement law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer April 23 criminalizes the act of being in the state without proper documentation and permits police officers to detain individuals for questioning based on what Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, Utah, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Migration, described as "a very low legal standard."

Numerous Catholic leaders issued scathing critiques of the law and said it only served to call attention to the need not for state laws of this kind, but for the comprehensive federal immigration reform they repeatedly have urged.

It isn't surprising that Catholic leaders might feel strongly about the new law. Yet I think that even if you are familiar with past statements by Catholic leaders on immigration reform and the needs of immigrant families and individuals, you will be struck by the intensity of their reaction in this case.

Supporters of the state law held that it is necessary because the federal government has not taken sufficient measures to control border problems.

Bishop Wester, like many others, said he feared the law might lead "to the profiling of individuals based upon their appearance, manner of speaking or ethnicity." The law, he said, "is symptomatic of the absence of federal leadership on the issue of immigration."

In an April 27 statement on behalf of his committee, Bishop Wester said the U.S. Catholic bishops "stand in solidarity with the bishops of Arizona in opposing this draconian law." He reiterated the U.S. bishops' repeated calls for "meaningful and just comprehensive immigration reform," and said:

"Our national leaders must educate the American public on the need for reform and show courage in making it happen. Until immigration reform is passed, other states will attempt to create and enforce immigration law, with harsh and ineffective consequences."

Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., told Catholic News Service April 28 that "a law like this has a great capacity for hurting people who are just going about their business." He hoped violence would not flow from the tensions surrounding the law's passage and signing. Religious leaders need to work with their communities to ensure that violence is not viewed as a way to address the situation, he said.

In the April 26 edition of the weekly online "Monday Memo" he writes to the Tucson Diocese, Bishop Kicanas said he believes the new law needs to be challenged in the courts. But he said that beyond the constitutionality issues it raises, he believes that the law:

-- "Does not address the critical need for border security to confront drug smuggling, weapons smuggling and human trafficking.

-- "Sends the wrong message about how our state regards the importance of civil rights.

-- "Distracts our local law enforcement from their primary role as protectors of public safety.

-- "Puts unnecessary pressure on the already depleted resources of local law enforcement.

-- "Discourages reporting of crimes by persons who lack citizenship documentation.

-- "Creates the risk that families will be split.

-- "Makes criminals out of migrant children and teens who had no choice but to accompany their parents here in their search for a better life.

-- "And creates risk of further harm to our state's economy."

Bishop Kicanas agreed that efforts need to be intensified "along the border to prevent the ingress of drugs and the flow of arms into Mexico that contribute to the violence and suffering of people along the border." That, he said, "is where our federal and state governments should be directing their efforts, not on making life more difficult for people who have migrated here out of desperate need and who are trying to eke out an existence for themselves and their families."

Furthermore, the bishop said, the federal government clearly needs to "take up its responsibility to fix the broken system of immigration that has led to the frustration experienced by so many." What is needed is a comprehensive immigration policy that "better addresses the realities of our day," he said.

The Catholic bishops of New Mexico called Arizona's new law "wrongheaded." They, too, were concerned that under the law "legal immigrants and U.S. citizens would probably be interrogated by the police" if they appear to be Hispanic or in any other way look foreign.

7. Blogging Archbishops of New York and L.A. Oppose Arizona Law

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angles and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York - each a blogger on his respective archdiocesan Web site - forcefully took issue with Arizona's new, state-level immigration law.

Cardinal Mahony called it the nation's "most retrogressive, mean-spirited and useless anti-immigrant law" in a blog entry April 18, five days before Arizona's governor signed it into law. The tragedy of it all lies in the law's "totally flawed reasoning -- that immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder and consume public resources. That is not only false, the premise is nonsense," the cardinal wrote.

And the law wrongly assumes "that Arizona residents, including local law enforcement personnel, will now shift their total attention to guessing which Latino-looking or foreign-looking person may or may not have proper documents," Cardinal Mahony said. But, he commented, "American people are fair-minded and respectful," and he could not "imagine Arizonans now reverting to German Nazi and Russian communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation."

The "highest priority" at this time "is to bring calm and reasoning to discussions about our immigrant brothers and sisters," Cardinal Mahony added. He urged readers of his blog to "put a human face on our immigrant friends" and to "listen to their stories and their desires to improve their own lives and the good of the nation."

Finally he said, "Let's direct our energies where they need to be focused: passing a federal comprehensive immigration law which is forward-looking and which will help balance our need for adequate labor forces in the coming years."

New York's Archbishop Dolan said in his blog that "anyone who does not believe that history repeats itself has only to take a look at the unfortunate new law in Arizona." He explained:

"Throughout American history, whenever there is tension and turmoil in society -- economic distress, political rifts, war, distrust and confusion in culture -- the immigrant unfailingly becomes the scapegoat." It is possible to "chart" the "periodic spasms of 'anti-immigrant' fever in our nation's history," he said, adding:

"And here we go again! Arizona is so scared, apparently, and so convinced that the No. 1 threat to society today is the immigrant, that it has passed a mean-spirited bill of doubtful constitutionality that has as its intention the expulsion of the immigrant. What history teaches us, of course, is that not only are such narrow-minded moves unfair and usually unconstitutional, but they are counterproductive and harmful."

But "thank God, there's another sentiment in our national soul, and that's one of welcome and embrace to the immigrant," Archbishop Dolan said. For, "to welcome the immigrant, to work hard for their legalization and citizenship, to help them feel at home, to treat them as neighbors and allies in the greatest project of human rights and ethnic and religious harmony in history -- the United States of America -- flows from the bright, noble side of our American character."

On the other hand, "to blame [immigrants], stalk them, outlaw them, harass them and consider them outsiders is unbiblical, inhumane, and un-American," Archbishop Dolan said.

He agreed that "every society has the duty to protect its borders and thoughtfully monitor its population." However, he wrote, this needs to be done "justly, sanely and civilly."

8. The Centrality of Charity in Ecumenism's Future

There are "compelling reasons" why those who participate in Christian ecumenism should renew efforts "to treat one another with charity," Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta said in an April 20 speech in Tampa, Fla., to the National Workshop on Christian Unity. An ecumenism of charity is particularly important "at a time when new challenges confront us," he said.

Ecumenism today calls both for "honest engagement" and "a big dose of Christian charity on all sides as we look at neuralgic new issues," Archbishop Gregory said. He insisted that the Catholic Church today "remains fully committed to the ecumenical enterprise." And he proposed that ecumenism is needed more, not less, at a time when new theological and moral issues pose vigorous challenges to divided Christians.

Archbishop Gregory presented three reflection points that he believes help to illustrate the central role charity ought to play in ecumenical relations. In these three reflections he drew upon a text titled "Elements of an Ethic of Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue" produced in 2004 by the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue group in France.

1. "The French group emphasized the need to cultivate rigorous intellectual honesty through hard work," Archbishop Gregory observed. This, he continued, "has to do first and foremost with a recognition on each side that their information about the other is limited, that there is much to learn from the other and that a rigorous honesty is required in examining not only the position of one's partner in dialogue but also and above all one's own tradition."

2. Dialogue also requires "respect for our Christian brothers and sisters and also for the communions to which they belong," Archbishop Gregory said in the second of his points based on the French text. "As Christians, we must always make a distinction between the issue about which we disagree and the person who expresses it," which means that "the other person must never be demonized, and the partner in dialogue must never be perceived as the enemy."

This point "also applies at the level of churches and ecclesial communities," the archbishop explained. He said, "Even if we may disagree with each other's official position on a particular question, we must continue to respect one other as Christian communions."

3. Finally, Archbishop Gregory noted, "the French dialogue group pointed out that in dialogue we must strive to submit to the truth not separately but together." On the one hand, he said, dialogue does not in any sense "imply an abandonment of the truth. We must always speak the truth to one another as we see it." At the same time, he said the French group was "convinced that the truth will not be received unless spoken in a context of friendship, a context of charity."

Charity is what "will allow us to face common problems together in a fruitful way and to realize that in many questions both our churches fail to adequately express the common truth in which we believe," Archbishop Gregory said. A dialogue of charity, he added, "must come first, and it must continue alongside the subsequent dialogue of truth."